The first insanely close-up photos of Pluto reveal water on its surface

“We did it.”

Those were the three words resounding through mission operations center at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laborator last night when NASA received confirmation that their spacecraft, New Horizons, had reached Pluto for the first time in history.

Now, the scientists are pretty abuzz with excitement. Why? Because they’re in awe of the photos that New Horizons took upon its closest approach, at less than 7,600 miles above Pluto’s surface. Here it is:

“We’re seeing features as small as half a mile,” said John Spencer during a NASA press briefing today. “The most stunning thing about this … is we have not yet found a single impact crater on this image. This means this is a very young surface.”

And the mountains near the center? They’re over 11,000 feet high!

“The bedrock that makes those mountains must be made of H20, water ice,” Stern said. “We see water ice on Pluto for the first time. We can be very sure that the water is there in great abundance.”

The above image is 10 times closer than the previous best view of Pluto that New Horizons took for us just before flew by Pluto. Here it is for comparison:

“This system is amazing,” said Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons, during a press briefing today.

Scientists are not certain what is causing the different colours on Pluto’s surface. That information will become available in the coming months as New Horizons transmits all of its scientific data to Earth.

Regardless, scientists are still speculating on what the colours could mean. In particular, the heart-shaped feature — now informally named “Tombaugh Regio” — so clearly visible in the above image could be made of snow.

Since it’s closest approach on July 14, New Horizons has travelled more than 1 million deeper into space. But before it left Pluto, it snapped more photos of Pluto’s moons. Here’s the most detailed image of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon.

CharonNASA / JHUAPL / SwRICharon, Pluto’s largest moon.

“Charon just blew our socks off” said Cathy Olkin, deputy project scientist on the New Horizons team.

Pluto and Charon did not disappoint, she said.

“Each image and data set have much more to tell us about Pluto’s history and how it and its moons have evolved,” Stern said with excitement.

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